In 1933, Macy’s department store heir and millionaire Herbert N. Straus died before he would see his Upper East Side mansion completed.
Eighty-six years later, the feds are looking to seize the $77 million townhouse, said to be the largest private residence in New York City.
The forfeiture request is part of the Southern District of New York sex trafficking case against Jeffrey Epstein, who owns the historic 21,000 square foot manse located at 9 East 71st Street, a stone’s throw from Central Park.
The home long known as the Herbert Straus Mansion, has a distinct and illustrious history and now, an infamous one.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Steeped in History, the Upper East Side Townhouse is Said to be the Largest Private Residence in New York City
The Museum of the City of New York features images of the building that was constructed beginning just before the Great Depression.
Macy’s heir Straus hired architect Horace Trumbauer to design a “40-room French Renaissance palace.” It was reported by blogger Tom Miller that “the Straus home was meant to reflect taste, elegance and wealth” and European antiques, fixtures indeed, “entire 18th-century rooms were purchased to be shipped to New York and installed in the new mansion.”
Construction of the six-story French limestone mansion was begun before the 1929 market crash and work slowed.
In 1933, Strauss died before seeing the mansion completed. That said, it sat empty owing to the high cost of taxes, The New York Times reported then: “His heirs…never saw fit to spend the additional money necessary to put the finishing touches on this lavishly appointed home.”
2. The Mansion Was Donated to the Roman Catholic Diocese of New York City. It Became a Convalescent Hospital, Then a Private School
The Straus family donated the building to the Archdiocese of New York, which could own it tax-free, and the mansion would become convalescent hospital St. Clare’s in 1945. Inside was centuries-old interiors, “a Romanesque-style chapel hung with 16th century Genovese red velvet” and with a “Louis XV reception room.” Patients had a view of Central Park.
The hospital closed in 1961 and the building was sold to the Birch Wathen School, now known as the Birch Wathen Lenox School, a private prep day school. The school relocated to East 77th Street and in 1989, retail mogul Leslie Wexner, of The Limited and Victoria’s Secret fame, bought the mansion from the Birch Wathen School, under his then-newly created corporation Nine East 71st Street of Columbus, Ohio. It’s reported that Wexner spent “tens of millions” renovating and decorating but never lived there.
3. Wexner & Epstein & No. 9 East 71st Street
In 1996, the New York Times wrote about the “majestic stone mansion at 9 East 71st Street.”
The Times wrote that Wexner paid $13.2 million for the house that he did not inhabit.
“Those curious to see the princely accommodations Mr. Wexner abandoned need look no further than the cover of last month’s Architectural Digest. When asked how long Mr. Wexner had occupied the property, Jeffrey Epstein, his protege and one of his financial advisers, replied, ‘Les never spent more than two months there.’ Thus the prorated cost of Mr. Wexner’s sejours would appear to have been in excess of a million dollars a day.”
In the ’96 story, the Times wrote that when “reached in Florida last week, Mr. Epstein said that the house was now his.”
It was officially deeded for $10 in 2011 from Wexner’s corporation to Epstein’s Maple, Inc. US Virgin Islands-based corporation according to New York City land records.
The Times piece also noted, “Visitors described a bathroom reminiscent of James Bond movies: hidden beneath a stairway, lined with lead to provide shelter from attack and supplied with closed-circuit television screens and a telephone, both concealed in a cabinet beneath the sink. The house also has a heated sidewalk, a luxurious provision that explains why, while snow blankets the rest of the Eastern Seaboard, the Wexner house (and Bill Cosby’s house across the street) remains opulently snow-free, much to the delight of neighborhood dogs.”
4. Inside Epstein’s Mansion, FBI Agents Reportedly Found Images of Nude, Underage Girls Locked in a Safe. Previous Visitors, Who Are Not Federal Agents, Have Described an Opulent, Extravagant & Unusual Interior
Described in minute, and fascinating, detail in a number of reports over the decades, as well as in depositions and court documents related to sex trafficking cases against Epstein by his victims, the mansion has been called a “crown jewel.”
Journalist and author Vicky Ward wrote that while meeting with Epstein at his mansion for a Vanity Fair piece, “the only book he’d left out for me to see was a paperback by the Marquis de Sade.”
Ward led her 2003 profile with a six-paragraph description of Epstein’s house, the city of New York’s reported largest private home that she called the “crown jewel of the city’s residential town houses.”
Ward wrote of the “15-foot-high oak door, huge arched windows, and nine floors” with black-suited “menservants” in not just a “rich person’s home, but a high-walled, eclectic, imperious fantasy that seems to have no boundaries.”
“The entrance hall is decorated not with paintings but with row upon row of individually framed eyeballs; these, the owner tells people with relish, were imported from England, where they were made for injured soldiers. Next comes a marble foyer, which does have a painting, in the manner of Jean Dubuffet … but the host coyly refuses to tell visitors who painted it. In any case, guests are like pygmies next to the nearby twice-life-size sculpture of a naked African warrior,” Ward described.
Epstein, an Earl Grey tea-drinker Ward wrote, served guests tea “in the ‘leather room,’ so called because of the cordovan-colored fabric on the walls. The chairs are covered in a leopard print, and on the wall hangs a huge, Oriental fantasy of a woman holding an opium pipe and caressing a snarling lionskin.”
Ward’s jaw-dropping description continued:
“Upstairs, to the right of a spiral staircase, is the ‘office,’ an enormous gallery spanning the width of the house. Strangely, it holds no computer. Computers belong in the “computer room” (a smaller room at the back of the house), Epstein has been known to say. The office features a gilded desk (which Epstein tells people belonged to banker J. P. Morgan), 18th-century black lacquered Portuguese cabinets, and a nine-foot ebony Steinway ‘D’ grand. On the desk, a paperback copy of the Marquis de Sade’s The Misfortunes of Virtue was recently spotted. Covering the floor, Epstein has explained, ‘is the largest Persian rug you’ll ever see in a private home—so big, it must have come from a mosque.’ Amid such splendor, much of which reflects the work of the French decorator Alberto Pinto, who has worked for Jacques Chirac and the royal families of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, there is one particularly startling oddity: a stuffed black poodle, standing atop the grand piano. ‘No decorator would ever tell you to do that,’ Epstein brags to visitors. ‘But I want people to think what it means to stuff a dog.’ People can’t help but feel it’s Epstein’s way of saying that he always has the last word.”
5. Owned By Millionaires For Decades, the Epstein Mansion May Soon by Seized by the Feds
According to Curbed, in 2007, in model Maximilia Cordero’s ultimately dismissed lawsuit against Epstein for rape “her lawyer included a description of what has by now become a legendary piece of puerile decor in chez Epstein: ‘[The] defendant gave plaintiff a tour of his mansion, showing her a huge crystal staircase with a huge crystal ball by the railing, ceiling chandeliers, a lounge room with red chairs, a statute [sic] of a dog with a statute [sic] of dog feces next to it.”
Now, in a case also about sexual assault, prosecutors are asking that the mansion be seized.
“As has been widely reported, the defendant is extraordinarily wealthy, and he owns and maintains luxury properties and residences around the world including in Manhattan …a multi story townhouse reported to be the largest single residence in all of Manhattan …which he owns through an LLC has been valued at $77 million …”
The mansion, it should be noted, is flanked by two other homes owned by the very wealthy; two of whom are now in jail.